By Tom Hart
Working in the technology sector for the better part of my adult life, sitting in front of a computer all day, reveals a sharp contrast to my early life growing up playing in the woods. This early experience instilled in me a sense of wonder regarding nature, and especially forests and their inhabitants both floral and faunal. It was a magical childhood in many ways.
Though I was sick often during the winter months (Ohio winters are long and brutal), I made up for it from spring through fall by spending loads of time outdoors – the better part of that among trees and looking at rocks in the creek and tadpoles and frogs in a small swamp. In the summer we chased fireflies and watched meteor showers at night. There were sometimes strange lights in the sky at night – which we attributed to UFOs (containing little green aliens of course). In the fourth grade, when I was 9, I joined the 4H club and learned about environmental issues. I decided then that I wanted to be a Conservationist. I had a deep interest in science and nature in general, but the art and beauty of all living things intrigued me.
It wasn’t until the age of twelve when my father died (a huge wake-up call for me) and we ended up moving into town, that I noticed a change in my overall mood. Not only was I grieving, and entering adolescence, but I had lost one other thing that had been a big part of my life – time in the woods. Sure, I still went out to our prior home’s nearby forest in the spring with my brother to hunt for mushrooms, and those were great times. Still, it wasn’t the same as having daily or at least weekend access to the woods, where I could get away from the humanized world and be among the ordered chaos that is nature. I felt melancholy often, and read many Science Fiction and Fantasy novels to help alleviate that mood through escapism. However, there is no escapism like hiking in the woods, because it forces you into the present moment, lest you trip over a rock and fall flat on your face.
After high school I had a chance to go to college for free due to my father’s death at work, however, I didn’t accept the opportunity, as I had no idea what I wanted to study, having lost the passion for the outdoors due to disruptive life events and general adolescent confusion. I was more concerned about my immediate personal needs than lofty ideals. Climate change wasn’t yet front page news. This was during a time of high unemployment in the United States and I couldn’t find work where I lived, so I moved out west where one of my sisters was living, and eventually got involved with Silicon Valley and the tech boom that was in full swing. I still enjoyed the occasional hike and spent lots of time at the beach as well, something we didn’t have in the Midwest. More and more of my time was spent commuting and working than ever before as my career and income advanced. I also got married, bought a house, had children, and basically fulfilled the American Dream. But something was always nagging at me – something was missing in my life.
If you walk down the hallway at your office, you may not notice anything different from day to day. Nature is unpredictable; no two hikes down the same trail are ever the same. The breeze is always changing, plants move and grow, leaves are scattered about, fallen trees are left to rot, the sounds of insects and birds ebb and flow, flowers bloom, animals leave signs of their passing, and mushrooms pop up seasonally, or whenever the conditions are right. The forest is a dynamo of natural processes that are fascinating to observe, and to study and learn about. This is something that I’ve come to cherish as I’ve grown older and have come full circle back to my “roots” in the woods.
I was laid off recently from my latest high-tech job and decided to go back to school and update my computer programming skills, I also began spending time at a sister’s ranch in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, where I fulfilled a dream of gold prospecting and general rock hounding in the wildlands. As I was taking programming classes and pursuing a Computer Science degree at my local college I signed up for a Geology class to fulfill a degree requirement and through that class I was reawakened to that childhood fascination of the natural world, especially rocks, and being outdoors in general, along with conservation, which it turns out has always been something I’ve cared about, but hadn’t thought of devoting myself to more deeply. Through the field trips required by the class and the professor’s enthusiastic lectures and humorous personal anecdotes my love of forests and everything natural came back to the forefront in my life. I changed my college major to Natural Science and am near to completing that degree, while continuing to learn computer programming — creating web sites and mobile apps. I began dabbling in Natural Resource Management, GIS, and using SQL to manage big data. I am also well on my way to becoming a State of California Certified Naturalist.
I have enjoyed many field trips and hikes since that time and have gotten two part-time jobs working in the woods, one for collecting data for post-wildfire tree regrowth studies and another for clearing fire fuel from private roads to make escape easier during future wildfires. My plan is to continue working in the technology sector, but to meld natural science and computer science in ways that will promote environmental protection. I want my children and their children to have the chance to experience the natural world and to value it over the humanized world we are creating through urban expansion and the destruction of the wildlands I grew up in and grew to love.